Case Study: Janitor Invests His Way to $8,000,000 Net Worth

​Imagine a world where even ordinary people can become wealthy. In this world, there would be a mechanism available to anyone to pull themselves out of poverty, and amass a fortune of their own.

Fortunately, we do live in this world, and this story will prove it to you.

Ronald-Read-Janitor-Millionaire-Secret

A man by the name of Ronald Read passed away in June 2014 at 92 years old. Ronald had a secret:

Ronald was worth about $8,000,000.

Here was a man who spent 25 years working as a gas station attendant at Haviland's service station in Brattleboro, Vermont and the rest of his career as janitor for his local J.C. Penney department store.

So how did Ronald do it? Lets break down the tenets that allowed a man earning an average income to generate such wealth.

Tenet: Live Beneath Your Means

Read was born in Dummerston in 1921.

He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, walking and hitchhiking about four miles each way from his home to the high school in Brattleboro.

The Brattleboro, Vermont man, who had no college education and drove a Toyota Yaris, always made a point of living below his means. Way, way beneath his means

Ronald was clearly not interested in accumulating stuff. He wore old clothes and was known by his friends and neighbors to hold his coat together with safety pins.

This guy foraged in the forest for his own firewood, rather than pay five dollars a bushel.

There was one type of thing that Ronald liked to collect: stock certificates in great businesses.

If he could save a penny, he would,' Bridget Bokum, a senior associate at his local Wells Fargo Advisors office told WSJ.

Ronald's favorite thing to collect were stock certificates representing ownership in great businesses.

Tenet: Keep it Secret

Ronald was stealthy about his accumulation of such a significant net worth, keeping his money a secret from even his own children and friends.

Friends and family knew that Ronald enjoyed investing but were reportedly shocked to discover upon his death that he had a safe deposit box with a stack of stock certificates five inches thick.

'I was tremendously surprised,' Stepson Phillip Brown of Somersworth, New Hampshire said of Read's hidden wealth. 'He was a hard worker, but I don't think anybody had an idea that he was a multi-millionaire.' Reported by DailyMail.co.uk

This was in addition to the nearly dozen-and-a-half direct stock purchase plans in which he was enrolled via electronic registration to take advantage of the lower costs they offered now that stock certificates are expensive to order out in physical form. Read also had a modest brokerage account which contained a relatively small percentage of his portfolio.

The majority of Mr. Read's stock certificates sat in a safe deposit box, not in a brokerage account. Instead of buying through a broker, he would buy directly from companies through direct stock purchase plans.

Tenet: Buy What You Understand

Mr. Read only bought ownership in businesses he knew and understood through first hand experience.His largest stock positions were in some of the best companies in the world:

  • Wells Fargo & Company = $510,900
  • Procter & Gamble = $364,008
  • Colgate-Palmolive = $252,104
  • American Express = $199,034
  • J.M. Smucker = $189,722
  • Johnson & Johnson = $183,881
  • VF Corp. = $152,208
  • McCormick = $145,055
  • Raytheon = $142,970
  • United Technologies = $140,880

The estate, with the help of Wells Fargo & Company, is adding up his holdings and trying to ascertain the extent of his fortune but at last count, they know he owned at least 95 businesses representing $8,000,000 in market value.

Tenet: Hold Forever to Compound

Ronald would research stocks at the public library by reading library copies of Barron's and the Wall Street Journal, acquire ownership stakes, and then patiently sit on them for decades, trusting compounding and diversification would work its magic.

He spent the last 60 plus years quietly, patiently, and regularly accumulating equity in some of the most successful businesses in the world, across a wide range of industries. He owned railroads, banks, credit card companies, industrial conglomerates, dish soap and toothpaste empires, packaged foods giants; you name it. He avoided technology stocks.

Tenet: Ignore Wall Street

Because Ronald would hold his positions for decades, his portfolio value would have declined by 50% or more on paper several times. His method of collecting stock certificates and stuffing them in a safe deposit box meant that he would not be subject to the fear of watching his portfolio decline.

In fact, for him to know what he was worth would have required many hours of calculations sitting next to his 5 inch thick stack of stock certificates.

 Ronald just kept at it with discipline, acquiring more ownership of productive assets despite multiple wars, inflation, deflation, numerous changes in the tax code, the threat of nuclear annihilation; it didn’t matter. He just held on.

Mr. Read's tactic to ignore Wall Street was to have the stock certificates shipped to him, then stick them in a safe deposit box at Wells Fargo, and never touch them again.

By ignoring Wall Street and all the buzz, and the constant stream of price changes, he was able to bypass a number of biases (heuristics) we have as human beings. He didn't need to react to changes in stock prices, because he was only making one decision: to buy.

Tenet: Minimize Taxes

Ronald know the value of deferring taxes for as long as possible. By never selling anything, he kept the tax man at bay permanently, reaping the benefit of compounding without paying taxes on the gains.

Tenet: Get Started and Keep At It

He started small. According to The Wall Street Journal, the trades go back to the 1950’s and began modestly. They provide one illustration. On January 13th, 1959, when he would have been around 37 years old, he bought 39 shares of Pacific Gas & Electric for $2,380; a purchase with an inflation-adjusted total of $19,200 or so in today’s purchasing power equivalent.

Tenet: Dividends Are Important To Compounding

Mr. Read only bought ownership in businesses that paid him a dividend so he could physically see the check arrive in the mail, which he would then deposit and use the cash to buy more shares.

We can estimate Ronald's dividend income by assuming a 3% dividend yield on the total $8 million, He was probably pulling down $20,000+ a month in dividend income before taxes on top of the roughly $12 an hour job he held.

Tenet: Diversify, but don't Di-worsify

Ronald's holdings weren't all winners. For one example, he held a stake in Lehman Brothers, which was wiped out in the Great Recession of 2008-2009. It wasn't that he decided to hang on to see what happened to it, it was that he slapped the stock certificate on the pile, and never looked at it again!

He relied on an intelligently constructed, diversified, representative list of common stocks that was arranged in such the inevitable losses were swamped by the growth and income of the other holdings.

Even if one of his piled-up stock certificates became worthless, he had the rest of the stock certificates compounding his wealth into a seven-figure net worth.

Tenet: Never Stop Learning

Stepson Phillip Brown, of Somersworth, New Hampshire, told the Brattleboro Reformer that the only indication Brown had of Read's investments was his regular reading of the Wall Street Journal

Read relied on subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal and Barron's for his investment knowledge, although he also made good use of his local library to which he has bequeathed $1.2 million.

Tenet: Altruism

Finally, Ronald appears to have been motivated, in part, by altruism. He gifted nearly all of his money back to society, leaving legacies for a local hospital as well as the public library he regularly visited to research investments.

We can learn a lot from Mr. Read. He got started early, kept at it, and most importantly, never sold a share. Mr. Read is an honorary member of the Never Sell Club.

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About the Author

Jeremy Scott Bailey is an investor, author, entrepreneur and host of the "What Works In Investing?" podcast now available on iTunes. He is founder and Chief Investment Officer of Burgeón Group, Inc. an investment advisory firm that provides portfolio management services to families and individuals.

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